Jaffareadstoo is delighted to welcome back to the blog the best selling author
Hi and welcome back to Jaffareadstoo, Elisabeth. Thank you for taking the time to come and talk with us today about your latest novel, The Good Doctor of Warsaw.
1 February 2018
Doctor Janusz Korczak is the eponymous doctor in The Good Doctor of Warsaw. Tell us about him and why you decided to tell his story.
I came across his quotes as a young mum and teacher and found them so helpful. You get pressures coming at you from all directions to be perfect and busy and Korczak helped me find a new perspective: he said just know your child and what they need. I began researching Korczak and came across Roman Wroblewski in Sweden, the son of two young teachers who worked with Korczak in the ghetto. So few people survived the ghetto and I realised the story would be lost if I didn’t try and tell it. Above all I wanted to share Korczak’s ideas on listening as the fabric of love.
The Good Doctor of Warsaw is set in Poland during WW2. In researching the book did you visit Warsaw and did anything leave a lasting impression on you?
Warsaw itself was an unforgettable experience. It is the site of a double tragedy. First the Jewish ghetto and it’s people were annihilated by the Nazis, then Hitler ordered the rest of Warsaw destroyed. The beautiful medieval centre was rebuilt from old photos and records but the Jewish ghetto is gone apart from a few sections of wall and various pavement markers, and a few buildings. The little white synagogue where Sabina was married is still there – it was a Gestapo stable during the war, as is the church where the girls went to obtain their false papers to escape the ghetto. The original orphanage built by Dr Korczak by some miracle is still standing and largely unchanged. It was an incredible experience to visit the place where he had cared for so many children, and where Misha had been a student teacher.
Mixing historical fact with fiction must be quite a challenge – how do you get the balance right without compromising on authenticity?
I kept to the facts but I did have to fill in missing information such as clothes, conversation and housing from research and then from imagination. I guess it’s the same principle as a historical film where there’s care taken to be accurate and authentic but you have to make decisions about filling in what is missing. Roman read the text and corrected errors which was challenging but essential.
Whilst you are writing you must live with your characters. How did you feel about them when the book was finished? Are they what you expected them to be?
I feel as though they are friends. Korczak’s words, books, and diary are all part of my life now and he has altered the way I approach relationships and caring for children. I think I put more value on listening and getting to know other people from different cultures and generations as probably the most important thing we can do. It makes for a happier life for children when they feel listened to and safe.
The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is a powerful story and your style of writing is very much ‘from the heart’. Did writing the book take its toll on you emotionally, and if so, how did you overcome it?
Yes, it was quite hard to read so many difficult things. But a story gives the cause and effect between the things that happen so I wanted to show how the ghetto had come about. I didn’t want to make a gratuitous list of difficult things, but rather to include enough to give readers a clear view of the history and of people’s choices and character. I believe it is a story that still informs the way Europe and modern society work and that made me keep going. I did take quite a long break from writing afterwards and fortunately had a restorative trip planned.
Without giving too much away, what do you hope readers will take away from reading The Good Doctor of Warsaw?
We can see childhood as an expert activity belonging to the parents who are under pressure to do it perfectly and may end up pressurising their own children in ways that make them unhappy. Kids don’t just belong to the parents, they belong to themselves, and really their welfare is the concern of all of us. So long as a society puts children as their highest care, then we will have a good nation. And children save us : Korczak said that when nations stop holding on to the hand of a child, then the world flies apart – which is what happened in Nazi Germany and in the Warsaw ghetto when so many children were taken away.
Huge thanks to Elisabeth for sharing her thoughts about The Good Doctor and for her insightful answers to my questions.
You can read my review of the book here
More About the Author
Elisabeth Gifford's debut novel, Secrets of the Sea House, was shortlisted for the historical writers' Association Debut Crown. She is married with three children and lives in Kingston Upon Thames.
More about Elisabeth can be found on her website
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